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Cicada Days

May 30, 2011
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My ongoing and frustratingly fruitless chase of Kentucky Warbler in the Triangle takes me this week to Butner Gamelands on the Granville County border north of Durham.  I have heard, through my “sources” (i.e. old breeding bird survey results and the local birding scuttlebutt), that they nest here, or at least they have in the relatively recent past.  Butner Gamelands is one of the brushy tracts that’s managed for game birds like quail and turkey, not immediately what you’d think of when you think about the requirements of Kentucky Warbler, but there are patches of lowland hardwood forests with a dense layer of undergrowth that those birds seem to prefer in these parts.  It might not have been ideal, but with a dearth of other good options it was where I was going on this last weekend in May.

We’ve been fortunate to have a long, mild spring in North Carolina this year, but with the calender about to turn to the first true month of summer the weather finally followed.  It’s been hot and sweaty here lately, made all the more so by the absence of brittle buzzy warbler songs.  It’s appropriate that the only birds up to cutting through the humidity are the languid Vireos and insistent Indigo Buntings, the true sounds of summer across much of the eastern US.  Their sweet slurs and jarring rhythms perfectly suited for cutting through the dense syrup of air, a butcher knife through an overripe cantaloupe.

There are Orchard Orioles too, mostly young ones singing muddled songs with too much whistling or not enough squeaks and churts.  They’re confusing until you track one down and the floodgates in your head open and the synapses are more accepting of bizarre variations on a theme.

Bugs, both the annoying and interesting types, were in abundance here.  I had my first Twelve-spotted Skimmer, a super flashy dragonfly with black and white spots, a sharp Black Swallowtail, more Great Spangled Fritillaries that I’ve ever seen in one place, and this cool looking dragonfly with racing stripes that I’m pretty sure is a female Spangled Skimmer but I’d appreciate any correction if it’s not.

The bugs that are all the rage down here these days are the 13 year cicadas making their triumphant return.  Each brood of cicadas that emerge periodically across the continent are given a number.  The southeast bugs are Brood XIX, known more colorfully as the “Great Southern Horde”.  They consist of two species, and both are calling these days in significant numbers.  If you want to get an idea of what we’re dealing with, listen to the video I made below.

Both species are present there, the weird alien drone Magicicada tredicim is the most prominent, but you can also hear the tic-tic-tic-buzzsaw Magicicada tredecassini, especially towards the end.  Lots of people are complaining about them, but I think they’re kind of cool, especially considering it’ll be another 13 years before we see them again.  The time frame these bugs work on is remarkable to consider.

I did not find Kentucky Warbler, not for lack of trying.  Though I did discover that the best area for them is just on the other side of the Granville County line and thus, outside of the bounds of my Big Year.  I discovered this after walking for half an hour getting increasingly excited at the prospect of turning up a Kentucky only to look at my GPS and see myself on the wrong side.  Some Triangle area birders consider this part of Granville County, along the far arms of Falls Lake, to be part of the Triangle and thus, countable and honestly, had I come across a Kentucky Warbler back there I might have considered changing the rules of my own year in the middle of it.  I was tempted.  Thankfully (?) , the warbler never caused me reason to stray.  I did pick up a couple dozen new birds for Granville County though.  Lemonade, I suppose.

I did pick up an Eastern Whip-poor-will, several actually, singing in southern Chatham County.  So this week wasn’t a total bust.

170 down.

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